It was pretty surreal. At the time, I didn’t know it was the first (men’s sweep) ever. We kind of made history twice. …It was amazing. It’s still sinking in, to be honest. —Keith Gabel, on the United State sweeping the podium in the Paralympic snowboard cross event
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Keith Gabel knew the conditions at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park were challenging, but nothing made that more clear to the Ogden native than when he broke his prosthetic foot during a training run the day before snowboard cross made it’s Paralympic début.
“There were a lot of wrecks,” he said of training. “I snapped one of my prosthetic feet, so I was kind of worried going into (the race).”
Gabel, who lost his foot in an industrial accident in 2005, said he has “walking feet and snowboarding feet.”
“The snowboarding feet are quite a bit more stiff, made for taking higher impact,” he said. “It was crazy because the day before the race, my roommate and teammate Mike Shea, we talked about treating this like it was any other race day.”
So in addition to making sure boards and bindings were in working order, they packed extra prosthetics.
“Luckily, I had my spare foot on the mountain,” he said. “I left it at the top, so I had to radio to have my bag brought down. I couldn’t snowboard on it. It was snapped in half.”
He said it was the feature where a lot of athletes crashed both during training and the race on Friday. He laughed about the incident as he’s known for destroying prosthetic limbs.
“I’m notorious for snapping feet,” said Gabel, who went on to be part of the first ever U.S. men’s sweep in the new event with his friend, Shea.
Evan Strong led the sweep winning gold, with Shea finishing just behind him for silver. In a telephone interview with the Deseret News, Gabel said it was an incredibly proud moment to share the podium with two other Americans.
“It was pretty surreal,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t know it was the first (men’s sweep) ever. We kind of made history twice. It was amazing. It’s still sinking in, to be honest.”
Unlike standard snowboard cross where athletes race against each other, eliminating athletes through several rounds, Paralympians navigate the course alone against the clock. Each athlete had to complete the course three times, and that can be a daunting task with snow conditions as they’ve been in Krasnaya Polyana.
“It was super warm for awhile, then it rained and then we got some snow,” Gabel said. “It was kind of crazy. The new snow kind of insulated the old snow, so you had this layer of fresh powder over a bottom layer of slush. They did an amazing amount of work to get the course prepared for us. It ran really fast.”
Gabel said his strategy is always the same, but he acknowledged the Paralympic course was “very technical.”
“My game plan was to make sure to stand up three runs, and as long as I did that, I thought I should make the podium,” he said.
Gabel said participating in the Paralympic games has exceeded his expectations.
Being able to soak in the atmosphere of everything from Opening Ceremonies to other competitions actually helped him acclimate to competing in the world’s largest Paralympic competition.
“A few days before the competition, I actually had to kind of remind myself, you’re not on vacation,” he said laughing. “You’re here to work. But to be able to see the other competitions, and have some time, it actually made me feel more comfortable.”
Being part of a U.S. sweep was a straight-out-of-a-dream moment.
“To be part of a clean sweep, man what an honor, what an honor,” he said. “It is a serendipitous moment, standing up there and hearing the roar.”
He said he plans to continue training and competing in hopes of making the U.S. 2018 Paralympic team.
“The whole things has been really cool,” he said. “Just kind of amazing.”
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